Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Country Store

I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that when I was growing up my Daddy and Grandpa were in a big way of bean farming.  Not owning a great deal of acreage themselves, they rented fields all over the mountaintop and under the mountain as well.  I have so many memories - both fond and a little scary, - of mountain roads rutted deeper than the truck’s wheel wells, trees reaching into the path so far you drove on faith that there was indeed a roadway and little fields cleared for a pair of mules and now accommodating modern diesel equipment.  Among those memories are innumerable little country stores. 

Today, most of those stores are closed and falling down.  As the department of transportation prepares to improve highway 127 through Fentress and Cumberland Counties even the paths that were dotted by this neighborhood mainstay will be obliterated. Ah, but that’s our purpose on this blog - to record and celebrate those memories – isn’t it?  So here goes…

First a memory.

I doubt that we stopped in the little country stores everyday that we worked in the bean field because we were pretty poor and while those places weren’t out to get rich, I’m sure brown-bagging is always cheaper.  Plus, we were in such out-of-the-way places that it just wasn’t practical to pull out at mid-day and go hunt a sandwich.  I guess the times we stopped at the little stores stand out in my memory because they were pretty special.  They sold most anything you’d need around the house, especially basic foodstuffs and you could always ask the clerk to make you a bologna (that’s baloney on the mountain by the way) sandwich.  Thick slices of meat on soft white bread with real American cheese and a slab of tomato and lettuce – maybe it doesn’t sound like much now.  Maybe it was just the atmosphere or maybe a day that started before dawn and spent beneath the hot sun of an open field really whets your appetite.  Maybe it was just a treat from Grandpa.  But it was a really good sandwich.  Then we washed it down with a cold Pepsi Cola from a tall glass bottle you pulled out of a beat up cooler and popped the lid on the side – I remember not being strong enough or coordinated enough to get the lid off myself.  And the clerk, who usually was also the owner, would sit down in a straight back chair and chat for a few minutes for there were always a few chairs and empty crates sitting around for the loafers.  No one had air conditioning but after hours of beating sun, the cold concrete some of the stores used for flooring seemed a cool paradise. 

These are not the kind of memories a 7-11 can offer and Exxon isn’t even interested in that kind of atmosphere.  The clerks hired by the big chains don’t have the same interest in their clientele and we’re all eating pre-packaged stuff that just does not compare to the old sandwiches.

Now my childhood memories don’t include barrels of pickles or crackers and I never carried eggs to the store to trade for groceries.  However, those same country stores – or ones exactly like them – welcomed a generation or two before me who would remember those things.  I’m including a picture of Peter’s Store in Clarkrange from the early 1900’s.  There’s still a store at that location – has been my whole life although the owners and the buildings have changed several times.  But Peter’s is a legend in itself!  They weren’t unique in the least for there were similar general stores across the country. 

The name of this store is unknown but it's laid out much like our local country stores.

The name of this store is unknown but it's laid out much like our local country stores.

Here you could bring in the eggs and butter your little farm produced and exchange them for things you could not grow like sewing thread and coffee.  You could get shoes there when the children’s handed down footwear could simply not be repaired again.  They had fabric – and they had feed, fertilize and bulk foods packaged in colorful cotton bags.  And if you recently made a windfall, there were candies and colorful glassware, a few ready-made clothes and books.

The local post office was housed at Peters so a trip into the store was necessary from time to time.  Yet my grandfather asserted that in bad weather it was harder for his parents to get to Peter’s than it would be for us to drive to Nashville today. 

At Uncle Lester Key’s store in Martha Washington, a kid could walk through carrying a single egg and exchange it for a sucker.  I wonder how many disappointed children didn’t quite make it with an un-cracked egg?  Peter’s sold suckers for a penny so it was pretty accommodating of the Keys to make this exchange for their youngest customers.

Even after cars became more widely available following the second world war, the neighborhood store remained an essential part of the community for decades.  They knew the people and would run a tab for you so the kids could walk to the store for a bag of sugar or other necessity.  They were a meeting place and a trip to the store was a social event where you were certain to see folks you knew and learn some piece of news.  Anyone returning from the store was asked, “Who’d you see?” and the report was as much anticipated as the goodies in the brown paper bag.